The Mindflayer's Matrix

edited January 2016 in Make Stuff!
Over in another thread, @David_Berg has posited the idea of re-dressing the Matrix in a D&D-esque fantasy setting.

Here I will lay out the basics, in my vision of this thought experiment:

* Deep in the underworld, Illithids (mindflayers) gather the living (but paralyzed or unconscious) bodies of humanoid slaves or captives, and place them in a form of sleep/suspended animation.

* The youngest Illithid larva feed off the dreams of these "dreamers" for sustenance.

* Once the larvae have matured sufficiently, they are gradually inserted into the brains of the "dreamers", forming, over time, a symbiotic bond. (Eventually the mind of the "dreamer" will be entirely subsumed, and a mature Mindflayer will arise, the original host effectively dead. However, for our purposes, let us assume this process takes a significant period of time.)

* To keep the "dreamers" docile and to keep them from waking up, the Illithids have manufactured or accessed a "dream world", where the unwitting "dreamers" think they live. In reality, of course, the dreamers lie in vats or pods in a series of caverns deep underground.

* The Dream is a fairly normal fantasy life, but the Illithids sometimes insert themselves into this world to look for problems or intruders. They travel the dream realm as Paladins: impossibly handsome, yet emotionless knights who patrol the kingdom of the Dream world as agents of the "King" and hunt down any anomalies.

* Much like Agents in the Matrix, these Paladins can modify the Dream when necessary, but must limit doing so lest they create a dissonance and more of the dreamers 'reject' the Dream world.

(Perhaps this is how this all started:)

* However, there is some way to wrest oneself from the Dream. Or, perhaps, someone has made their way into one of these Breeding Places where the dreamers lie, and broken someone out of there. Either way, there are now a handful of "survivors" who have emerged from the Dream into the Real World and now find themselves trying to survive in the underworld environment.

* (It could also be entirely plausible to posit that, for some magical reasons, some dreamers must be allowed to escape, lest they poison the Dream itself, or because of some special rules of the Dream World.)

* The Real World environment is a serious of caverns deep underground. The Illithids keep a great number of monstrous creatures down here, and, when necessary, control them psionically to defend themselves from intruders or invaders. Generally, however, the monsters simply wander around looking for food. (There is a possibility that the survivors, if they could distract the Illithids, or protect a particular monster from psionic control, might manage to use some of these monsters to their advantage, although generally they must do their best to avoid them... otherwise, it's "kill or be killed" down here.)

* The survivors know of a method for extracting others from the Dream world, but it requires entering it yourself and contacting the person inside the false reality.

* Once that is done, the person needs to be located in the real world and rescued. If they have already been "seeded" with an Illithid larva, things become more complex:

a) At some point, the larva will kill the host and subsume its personality.
b) A powerful alchemical substance may be manufactured, which, if injected into the brain of the host body, forces the larva out. However, this is difficult, expensive, or takes a long time.
c) If the formula is not on hand, the survivor will have to be "rescued" with the parasite still in their brain, and is an effective time bomb (or worse), until the process can be carried out.

(Option C gives us the potential for lots of interesting Mafia-like interactions between the survivors, if desired.)

* Potentially, we could use different game rules for the Dream world (something fit for high fantasy, or a simplified ruleset, and which allows unusual magical powers or some other form of reality-bending) and the real world (which uses a gritty and deadly dungeon crawling ruleset).

Gameplay
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As the game progresses, the community of escapees must survive, finding safe places, food, weapons, and earning experience and skills. If things go well, they community grows (by rescuing more people from the Illithid vats) and eventually escapes or overthrows the Illithid masters (a possible endgame).

However, if they are discovered or killed, the game has been lost.

Otherwise, the game is fairly standard "dungeon crawl" and would run very well in your typical D&D-esque ruleset (I'd go totally old school for this, myself), with the exception that the PCs have no safe place to retreat to except what they can establish for themselves.

Each player controls a 'stable' of characters and decides which to send on various delves or missions. If they are killed, you write up a new community member as your character.

The size of the community and number of people acts as a form of "hit points" for the group; run out of characters to play and you've lost the game.

Therefore, the players will have to raid the Dream vats on a regular basis to recruit new members (and thereby replenish or grow their numbers).

Comments

  • edited January 2016
    Other ideas:

    * I prefer the view that Illithids are physically frail, and therefore do not like to expose themselves to danger. It's, rather, their ability to control their enslaved monsters (when nearby) which makes them dangerous. I know that canonical Illithids have all kinds of combat-effective psionis powers, but this seems less interesting to me.

    Unanswered questions:

    * Much like in the Matrix itself, why is it that the bodies of the captives/dreamers are not better guarded? It seems awfully easy to steal them away. Some justification for this, at least well enough to understand how "rescue" operations are carried out, seems necessary here.

    * Is there a prophecy equivalent to the prophecies in the Matrix? (Optionally, it could exist but be a wishful fabrication by the survivors, which would be just as good...)

    * Will some sort of mechanic be needed to determine if the survivors are ever found/discovered/hunted down by their Illithid overlords? Or can this be left to in-fiction causality?
  • I love this idea. Please write it up in the form of a faux OD&D module written by Philip K Dick :)
  • I wasn't liking the character stable idea until you got to vat-raiding as party hit points. That's awesome.

    The idea that one of your NPCs, who you might need to play in future to keep the party going, might actually (at some point) turn out to have already been co-opted by the enemy via a brain parasite, is awesome.

    I like "if discovered, shit gets worse", but I think there's a lot of fun potential there -- racing a timer, getting un-discovered, having risk of discovery be a thing that you can play around with rather than being one-and-done -- so I wouldn't go "game is lost" there.
  • The idea of mindflayers filling their catacombs with monsters who wander past vats looking for food but never eat the vat-dwellers... it seems a little odd to me. I think it might be more fun if the dungeon crawl was about more than surviving wandering monsters en route to the next vat.

    Perhaps the dungeons are slowly under attack by creatures that are hostile to player characters and mindflayers alike, raising possibilities for different types of allegiances?

    Perhaps the dungeon has mindflayer sentries (or midflayer-controlled sentries, whichever) with varying abilities to fight and communicate with their distant leaders?

    Perhaps the dungeon has places where the player characters can mess with the Dream itself, possibly via one of the mindflayer dream-creators or dream-maintainers?

    Different levels of useful stuff under different levels of guard seems fun to me.

    It might also be fun to map different unpluggables to different dungeon areas -- "Guys, we need to get to Level 3 Section 9 because we really need an archer and that's where to get one."

    And then, if dungeon-navigating info is important, you can have different ways of pursuing that info.

    I like the idea that more desperate/ambitious plays by the players come with increased odds of attracting mindflayer attention. Tracking that with numbers might be a good thing.
  • edited January 2016
    Excellent ideas, Dave. I dig.

    I like "if discovered, shit gets worse", but I think there's a lot of fun potential there -- racing a timer, getting un-discovered, having risk of discovery be a thing that you can play around with rather than being one-and-done -- so I wouldn't go "game is lost" there.
    What kinds of things might help here? (Asking anyone reading, not just Dave!)
    The idea of mindflayers filling their catacombs with monsters who wander past vats looking for food but never eat the vat-dwellers... it seems a little odd to me. I think it might be more fun if the dungeon crawl was about more than surviving wandering monsters en route to the next vat.
    My idea here was, rather, to create the dungeon as full of creatures, with their own ecology. One type of beast preys on another, and so forth.

    The vats are not in danger because the 'flayers keep them patrolled and keep the monsters away from them (or have them in locations the monsters can't reach, like through narrow tunnels or underwater or whatever).

    They creatures have a relationship to each other, but the mindflayers tolerate them because they know they can control them at times of need as a form of defense against any kind of opposition which is combat-effective (which the mindflayers are not). What kind of opposition might that be? ->

    Perhaps the dungeons are slowly under attack by creatures that are hostile to player characters and mindflayers alike, raising possibilities for different types of allegiances?
    This seems perfect for that purpose! There is another faction invading or attacking or spreading out of an even lower level of the Underdark. Excellent; a nice complicating factor.

    The players probably won't know about it to begin with, but can discover about it as time goes by (and it could give a reason why the vats are occasionally unguarded - the 'flayers are off fighting their war of defense or some such).
    Perhaps the dungeon has places where the player characters can mess with the Dream itself, possibly via one of the mindflayer dream-creators or dream-maintainers?
    This seems like a very fertile ground for coming up with some more weirdness.

    I like the idea that more desperate/ambitious plays by the players come with increased odds of attracting mindflayer attention. Tracking that with numbers might be a good thing.
    Agreed!
  • What I find particularly neat about this concept is that it is perfect for a traditional D&D "roll-em-up"-style character creation. You rescue someone from the vats, you might already have a sense of their personality from the Dream, and now you roll their stats and find out how capable their "body" is.

    I'd be inclined to hack some OSR-ish game to remove classes, however. Either remove them altogether, or have them chosen in play, as the new recruits learn some skills.

    One thing I wonder about is what the Dream actually looks like. For relatability, it would be fun to have it look like the Matrix world - 1980s urban America - with the escapees then appearing in this horror-fueled underground nightmare. But I'm not sure how much sense that really makes.

  • I'd be inclined to hack some OSR-ish game to remove classes, however. Either remove them altogether, or have them chosen in play, as the new recruits learn some skills.
    This seems ideal for a DCC funnel. I might up the 0-level hit points, though.

    One thing I wonder about is what the Dream actually looks like. For relatability, it would be fun to have it look like the Matrix world - 1980s urban America - with the escapees then appearing in this horror-fueled underground nightmare. But I'm not sure how much sense that really makes.
    Generic D&D fantasy is the obvious, perhaps too obvious, option. It would fit neatly with being a past era of the real world, like in the film. But the fun of pointing out the glitches in the dream - "Why would this technology even exist, when magic can do the job?" - might get old fast and tip things over into parody.
  • Maybe the Dream is classic wish-fulfillment power fantasy D&D? Most people are bold adventurers, gracefully slaying monsters and gaining power, facing just enough challenge to keep them engaged. The farmers and workers and other people necessary to keep the dreamworld plausible are shallow projections of the mindflayer dreamers. Heck, maybe the escapees who go back into the Dream and bring special knowledge or powers with them are effectively leveled way up. Maybe levels are an in-dreamworld thing, where everyone's like, "Hey bro, I'm 7th, how 'bout you?" and the escapees get to be, like, 20th or something. The mindflayer agents who manifest in the Dream to fight the escapees would then be the baddest of the bad -- monsters with tons of immunities and nasty spells, like dracolichs or ilithilichs etc.

    Dunno if that's too goofy fictionally, but I kinda like the gameplay possibilities, and the meta-commentary cracks me up.
    My idea here was, rather, to create the dungeon as full of creatures, with their own ecology. One type of beast preys on another, and so forth.

    The vats are not in danger because the 'flayers keep them patrolled and keep the monsters away from them (or have them in locations the monsters can't reach, like through narrow tunnels or underwater or whatever).

    They creatures have a relationship to each other, but the mindflayers tolerate them because they know they can control them at times of need as a form of defense against any kind of opposition which is combat-effective (which the mindflayers are not).
    I'm sure you're solving this issue just fine in your own mind, but can you go on a bit for my sake? I'm not seeing it yet.

    I think of mindflayers as smart and strategic. Planting all your young in a dangerous environment where it takes active effort to keep them from being destroyed (and/or you have to make them inaccessible) seems stupid and risky.

    This would make more sense to me if the catacomb monsters had all been bred or programmed or something by the mindflayers to never harm the vats. Maybe the ilithids' Great Brain sends out a pulse that influences them this way. I still like your idea that the monsters can sometimes come under direct 'flayer control and thus provide more targeted opposition to the players, but I don't think their default state should be "free to do whatever". Heck, maybe the constant pulse suggestion includes some hostility to free humans -- maybe if not for the Great Brain, some of these beasts would have just left the PCs alone.
    There is another faction invading or attacking or spreading out of an even lower level of the Underdark. Excellent; a nice complicating factor.

    The players probably won't know about it to begin with, but can discover about it as time goes by (and it could give a reason why the vats are occasionally unguarded - the 'flayers are off fighting their war of defense or some such).
    Nice! Since the 'flayers don't have infinite resources to throw at stopping the PCs, that makes intelligence-gathering crucial for them, and secrecy crucial for the PCs. Cool.
  • edited January 2016
    Oh, hey, this bit from my initial idea in the other thread might inform our idea of the dreamworld:
    Every time your party clears a safe space in the dungeon, you can return to the dreamworld (via some ilithid device the catacombs are filled with) to use it to communicate with people at distance, exchange spells, and otherwise better equip yourself to fight the mindflayers in the real world and the dreamworld. Maybe spells you learn in the dreamworld work in the real world too? Or maybe, like uploads in the Matrix, spells are something that originates from the real world but is only useful in the dreamworld; the missions in the dreamworld would then have to be about something else, a la "The One" arc.
  • Or maybe, like uploads in the Matrix, spells are something that originates from the real world but is only useful in the dreamworld; the missions in the dreamworld would then have to be about something else, a la "The One" arc.
    This way round feels stronger.

    Maybe the spells are alchemical hallucinogens that, in the real world, mess with your perceptions and get you high - but in the dream world those altered perceptions give you greater control over your lucid dreaming, i.e. they're magic spells.

  • Maybe the spells are alchemical hallucinogens that, in the real world, mess with your perceptions and get you high - but in the dream world those altered perceptions give you greater control over your lucid dreaming, i.e. they're magic spells.
    Ooh! There could be some interesting trade-offs there. The power you get in the dreamworld is related to the hindrance you suffer in the real world. Depending on how badly you need to get something done in the dreamworld, you might put yourself in a condition where your party has to tote you around in the catacombs after you jack out, because you're poisoned or tripping or something. There would then be a strategic element of deciding whether to spread the disabilities around the party, so everyone's at small penalties, or dump them into one or two characters, so the rest are at full strength to defend them afterward.

    Maybe eating toxic mushrooms gives your dream self Cloud Kill or an acid breath weapon. Smoking weed gives your dream self Daze or Confuse powers. Piercing your hands with needles gives your dream self super claws that slice through anything. Leeching yourself confers Vampiric Touch. Inhaling thick smoke confers smoke, darkness, or shadow powers. Fasting gives you Energy Drain. I could go on and on... not sure if this is actually a good idea. Perhaps it's better to simply relate dreamworld spells/powers to how much of which alchemical hallucinogen you take. Maybe alchemical stuff is the basic default route, and messing yourself up is just about dosage... but then you can try to boost effects by other means if you want.

    Note: With the "stable of characters" approach, it's be tempting to just make PCs of the healthy folks and NPC those who are out of it -- that could be fun, but it probably shouldn't be advantageous, so I'd recommend that NPCs lag behind PCs in leveling or some other sort of capabilities.
  • wayway
    edited January 2016
    Why is that there is only a single Dream? It is a deviation from the source material, but there could be multiple. Diving into a Dream would also mean exploring that specific Dream's rules as well. Multiple planes and such.
  • Ah, that's interesting! Hmmm.
  • Maybe the Dream is classic wish-fulfillment power fantasy D&D? Most people are bold adventurers, gracefully slaying monsters and gaining power, facing just enough challenge to keep them engaged. The farmers and workers and other people necessary to keep the dreamworld plausible are shallow projections of the mindflayer dreamers. Heck, maybe the escapees who go back into the Dream and bring special knowledge or powers with them are effectively leveled way up. Maybe levels are an in-dreamworld thing, where everyone's like, "Hey bro, I'm 7th, how 'bout you?" and the escapees get to be, like, 20th or something. The mindflayer agents who manifest in the Dream to fight the escapees would then be the baddest of the bad -- monsters with tons of immunities and nasty spells, like dracolichs or ilithilichs etc.

    Dunno if that's too goofy fictionally, but I kinda like the gameplay possibilities, and the meta-commentary cracks me up.
    I think this edging perilously close to a sort of Sword Art Online here, where the Dream is a VR MMO. Not that that is at all a bad idea, but it's a bit of a ways off from the original.
  • edited January 2016
    Why is that there is only a single Dream? It is a deviation from the source material, but there could be multiple. Diving into a Dream would also mean exploring that specific Dream's rules as well. Multiple planes and such.
    I like the idea that the Dream is a sort of unified connection, where you can reach anyone who's plugged into it, even if your bodies are far apart. The idea that the Dream's rules and presentation could depend on other factors is very cool, though.

    Perhaps the Dream has certain Zones, defined locally by the Dreamer in charge, and some of these have inhabitants who are unaware of other Zones. This could be the source of some in-dreamworld drama, much like the "sense that something is wrong" that causes Neo to seek the truth of the Matrix. Zone-crossing could be anything from dramatic plane-shifting to "leaving the war zone and immigrating" or "getting out of the inner city", depending on how subtle/fantastic we want to be. I kinda like the idea that there could be a sort of workmanlike mindflayer dreaming Canada and a sadistic mindflayer dreaming the Gaza Strip, etc.
  • Is there a way to have fun with being the "operator", overseeing the dream mission from the outside?

    I guess this role would be passed around to currently inactive players during a mission. So while it's someone else's action scene, you get to be the person shouting advice through a mystical scrying lens and forcing spell potions down people's mouths and stuff.

    Maybe shouting advice from the cheap seats is enough fun by itself.
  • Perhaps the "operator" gets an advantage in being able to see or detect things the "dreamers" cannot? (As well as, as you say, force potions down their throats, which is a pretty compelling image!)
  • Insane ideas, I love them!
  • Maybe each character advances (or is defined) by gaining "slots"? And some slots are better for some dreamworld powers than others? So what the operator does is try to optimize the powers that are filling your slots at any given moment, to best deal with the momentary situation?

    Unless the operator gets to do something cool that directly impacts what the PCs are up to in the dreamworld, I wouldn't want to have my PC be an operator. But maybe my plan here doesn't actually achieve that, as other players will just be calling for the powers they want, rather than leaving those interesting decisions to the operator? Unless we make a fictional rule of "can't talk to operator from dreamworld" and then also a social rule to reflect it...

    Maybe the operator should be an NPC, and the players collectively operate them as just another tool in the toolkit?
  • I imagine that the the larva is not removed, but is chemically put in a coma/stasis so ex-dreamers can get back into the dream-world. Natural born humans can not hack in to the dream world without specialized magic.
  • I like that!

  • Maybe the operator should be an NPC, and the players collectively operate them as just another tool in the toolkit?
    Yeah, I was thinking a shared NPC.
    Maybe more than one, and they level up with mission experience. So sometimes you have to let the junior one run the show to gain some xp, otherwise if the best operator is out of action, you'll be stuck with a total rookie.
  • I'm just revisiting this thread out of nostalgia, as I ponder some possible games to run for a few of my OSR friends.

    One wonky idea is to use Dungeon World for the "dream" reality, and some hardcore old-school D&D for the "real world".
  • This great concept regularily comes to my mind too, but I usually find its non transparent nature unsuitable for long term play. Maybe it was okay to do it in the 80s and 90s, but nowadays?
  • I missed this this first time around, but my first thought was combining Dread with Dungeon world or something. It would be less inspired by the matrix but I like the idea of power disparity between virtual world and 'real' world.

    You could even say it was one of the earlier iterations of the matrix that looked like D&D lol. Or something sort of inspired by the two world's concept.

  • @hamnacb, which non-transparent parts are you referring to?

    There is some appeal to recreating the “surprise reveal” of the movie for the players, true (and I do wonder if that could be done well!), but it doesn’t have to be done that way at all - it could all be entirely above board.

    @Kenny_J,

    Doing the “Matrix” (non-real world) portions of the game via Dread (jenga) is absolutely brilliant!

    There might be some problems getting the Dread rules to support what is pretty clearly a Gamist agenda, which is an issue. But otherwise it’s absolutely brilliant!
  • What I mean is, then in the first matrix film one of the idea is explored was that clearly one of the world's was more fun more pleasurable but it was an illusion and the real world clearly sucked but it was real.

    It wouldn't have to be dread, but my mind went to the idea of a horror game where when you're in the 'real' world things are way darker, and players have way less power, but it's real.

    it's kind of a tangent off thing from your idea but it's got me kind of excited.
  • As for surprise, I was thinking about this too. I'm wondering if it would simply be ok if everyone was on board with "A big reveal" as a concept without saying ahead of time what it is.

    You start dropping hints and ask players who catch on to not spoil it for others then blam. Your in a fake world. I think if everyone knew something was coming it might add more to the tension in regular Hitchcock style.

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